How would you describe yourself in terms of religious belief and identity?
I am a Christian and I am an Anglican and I have been since my childhood. My father was an Anglican vicar. So, from childhood I have been an Anglican, and I regard myself as a practising Anglican now.
At times at university I questioned my beliefs. I tried out various Evangelical approaches within the Protestant tradition, but I wasn’t comfortable with these and I moved back to mainstream liberal Anglicanism and have remained there ever since.
I suppose by inclination I am more High Church than Low Church. The church which I attend would be on the high spectrum, but certainly not very high Church. I am comfortable being at either High or Low Church services.
Is GB an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?
I think Great Britain, generally speaking, is an equal and tolerant society in relation to religion and belief. I think that there is a lot of tolerance, generally, in terms of the beliefs that people hold. There are issues in terms of the way people respond to the manifestation of beliefs. So, some amount of intolerance of the expression or manifestation of beliefs by others, particularly, I think when they hold less mainstream beliefs. To give an example. I think there is a lot of intolerance towards people who hold Pagan or Wiccan beliefs in the workplace, because they are seen as something strange, and people don’t understand and they don’t really want to understand. So, yes, generally there is a lot of tolerance, but in places it is a bit qualified.
Are there any challenges for you in living in accordance with your beliefs? Are there challenges, and if so, are they social, legal or political in nature?
As an Anglican, it is in a way easier for me than it would be for those of other religions. Although I describe myself as an Anglican rather than the CofE, it is obviously the State Church, it’s very easy for me to practise my beliefs on a regular basis, and so I don’t really face difficulties or challenges in doing so.
How does Anglicanism regard Human Rights?
I think Anglicanism has influenced the way human rights are understood in our society nowadays. I think Christianity in general has a legacy that has helped the promotion of human rights generally, but not always. There are clearly Anglican traditions in places like South Africa under apartheid, where the Anglican input was very important in the struggle against apartheid, people like Desmond Tutu. However, there are tensions within the Anglican Communion essentially on issues of sexuality. So, you could say there that there are some conservative parts of Anglicanism which are not particularly promoting equality and human rights. Particularly in terms of same sex relations and sexuality in general. So, a bit of a mixed picture, I think.
Are Human Rights which apply to all people a good thing for our society?
Human rights which apply to everyone are a good thing. That’s an easy question!
Is the Church of England making any practical contribution towards Human Rights?
The Anglican Churches in Britain are involved in campaigns concerning equality issues. For example, there is a recent push coming from Justin Welby in terms of campaigning against poverty, but more especially against the kind of organisation like Wonga and the issues caused by money lending. There is some impetus within Anglicanism in the UK to develop alternatives to the kind of problems caused by money lending in terms of impoverishing people. For example, through establishing credit unions. In terms of human rights, probably in the past it has been more external than in the UK. Again, South Africa is an example, but there are other examples too.
Do government bodies respect Human Rights?
Generally speaking on the whole HR are respected by the Government and other public bodies in the UK. There have been threats to get rid of the HRA. So far they have been resisted, but there are clearly pressures from some right wing groups to get rid of the HRA, which obviously I would be completely opposed to. Depending on the outcome of the 2015 general election, those dangers could increase. They are related to some of the high profile legal cases, such as Abu Hamza, which are often misreported; there is a lot of misreporting of the judgments of the ECtHR. So, the other area where there are some threats against the constitutional framework concerning human rights comes from parts of the media, which obviously influences politicians at times… My own view is that the HRA won’t be abolished, but there is definitely opposition to it. So, we shall see.
I would say that public authorities must do more in terms of religion or belief… under the public sector equality duty, public bodies have a number of obligations in terms of promoting equality, promoting good relations, etc, and some fulfil these. But I think there is still amongst public bodies a bit of fear about not knowing what to do in terms of religion. This is related to a lack of religious literacy. In some cases there is a feeling that religion doesn’t have a place in the workplace. So, there is a view – quite a 1970s view – that the workplace must be secular. That is one reason why public bodies don’t do as much as they should. The second reason, which I think it is more important, is that they don’t know what to do and they are afraid of causing problems themselves if they do something which helps one group but offends others. On the other hand, there are instances where I think public bodies have got things spectacularly wrong in terms of religion or belief. I’ll give you an example of that. Some years ago, Birmingham City Council decided that they would rename the Christmas events they organised, ‘Winterval’. It was a complete misunderstanding of what they should be doing and they alienated a lot of people. For well-meaning reasons they were trying to do something that would be inclusive, but it just ended up being a big mistake. So, you have examples of where things are done badly and certainly it would have been better if they hadn’t done it. But on the whole public authorities should do more in this area.
When should state authorities intervene to limit citizens expressing their beliefs?
I think public authorities or the State must intervene [in people’s religious freedom and belief] if the actions of one person have a harmful or detrimental effect either on other individuals or other groups. Freedom of expression is an interesting and tricky concept because one person’s freedom of expression is another person’s harassment.
Is living in a Parliamentary democracy a good thing in terms of your faith? Is there another system which you would prefer?
Yes, partially for historical reasons in the way in which religious tolerance has developed in the UK since 1688… I think that legacy is important in the sense that there is this climate of tolerance, linked to the fact that we have a Parliamentary system, but also linked to the fact that religious tolerance has evolved over time, I think that’s significant as well…. The historical element of that. Of course, as a historian I would say that!
Do you believe that you have a duty to vote?
I am actually in favour of an Australian system of compulsory voting. People should be required to make the effort to go to the ballot box and then if they want to cross out every name, tear the ballot paper, etc, that’s fine, but I think if you live in a democracy, you have responsibilities. And to anyone who questioned that, I would say that I have an image still in my mind of the first elections after the ending of the Apartheid in South Africa, of an old lady, she must have been about 90, she was going up the hill, the ballot box was at the top of the hill… she was going incredibly slowly, but she was determined to vote, because she had never had a chance to vote, and I thought ‘well, if she can’… I often wonder if she made it to the top. I also know that many people don’t have the opportunity to vote across the world… we do, and I think it is a requirement, as part of being a good citizen, to go to the ballot box and from then on you can do what you like.
It is appropriate that Parliament has the final say in making and changing law?
Would you like to see a judiciary empowered to strike down legislation?
In the UK, you have the ECtHR as a kind of final level of legal decision-making… religion or belief is a good example of this… So, personally I wouldn’t like to see the British judiciary empowered to strike down legislation, but without being particularly opposed to the American system. I think if you have a higher European level of decision-making, in a sense you perhaps don’t need the judiciary to have the same role as in America, where they don’t have that higher level.
In the UK, there is this check on decisions made by UK courts… like any other individual, there are judgments in British courts which I would find surprising, but I trust the judiciary… despite the limited number of women, ethnic minorities, etc, within the judiciary… although this has changed a lot over the years; there are more women now involved in senior positions, you could argue that the gender balance has changed more than the ethnic balance within the judiciary. I am more familiar with religion or belief cases and with a lot of them going through two, three, four levels of courts… that is helping the quality of the judgments… Again, I think we have a good system in place.
Is majoritarian democracy a problem for minorities? Are there some groups who find it harder to participate than others in our democratic process?
I think it is certainly more difficult for individuals from some particular groups than others to be elected to Parliament. The party system has strengths and weaknesses, but it is often harder for people from lower class backgrounds to be selected by parties and win winnable seats… and that’s really what is all about, because if you are selected for seats which aren’t winnable, that doesn’t count for much. I think that was the case for women; I know of an Equal Opportunities Commission report in the early 2000s that examined the difficulties women faced in getting selected for winnable seats. I don’t know whether a different electoral system would make a difference. I would personally like to see proportional representation, but I don’t really know how much it would affect the class, race, gender backgrounds of elected MPs.
Does it concern you that members of the House of Lords are not elected?
I would prefer to see elected members of the House of Lords, probably partially, although quite a large proportion… I think there is a place for nominated members of the HofL rather than being wholly elected. I don’t have a problem, for example, with the fact that the bishops are in the HofL. I think there are probably too many and I would prefer to see members of the HofL being chosen from a wider range of religions and a wider range of beliefs. I do think that there should be a voice for religious and secular voices within the HoL, to debate moral issues, whereas in a wholly elected Chamber you wouldn’t get that… I also think the establishment of life peers was a good development. I don’t know the exact proportion of life peers in relation to hereditary peers at the moment, but you could argue that perhaps there are too many hereditary and life peers, and by reducing those numbers you could allow other peers to be elected. As I said, I would be opposed to a wholly elected second chamber.
How do you feel about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?
We have 26 bishops. Too many. We could have 6 or 10 and then representatives of other religious traditions or beliefs, and also people who are appointed because of their humanist or secular beliefs. That is also important.
I think to some extent the CofE represents other sectors. I think there has been a change in the last few years, and certainly some bishops consciously want to represent other faiths, and that’s good, but you could also say that it would be better if other religions or beliefs could have their own representatives. So, I think within the current structure that has been a positive development. Bishops no longer think they are speaking on behalf of Anglicanism, whereas certainly they would have done so in the 19th century, and most of the 20th century as well. So, that is a change, but I would reduce the number of bishops, we probably don’t need more than half a dozen and then use that opportunity to have a more diversified religious representation.
Do public authorities respect the will of Parliament?
I think on the whole public authorities respect the will of Parliament. I think public authorities would respond to religion or belief in a different way than to say gender, race or disability. As I said, at times public authorities think that religion should not be in the workplace, but on other occasions they really don’t know how to respond. I think most public bodies know what to do – probably because the legislation has been established longer – in terms of race, gender and disability. They may not always do things properly, but they have a clearer idea of what they should be doing, even if the practice at times doesn’t always match the theory…
How do you feel about the EU and devolution?
I think it is very important that the UK is part of the EU, and I think it is unfortunate that really since the time the UK joined the European Communities in the mid-1970s, there have been voices against it, particularly now with UKIP. I think it would be a disaster if the UK left the EU. I don’t think it will happen and it would be a disaster if it did. I am definitely pro-European.
Also, I think some European institutions, like the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights, have very important roles to play.
In terms of devolution, I am in favour of maximising the sort of decentralisation of powers. I think if I lived in Scotland, I would have voted yes in the referendum, because I think Scotland should be independent, but… despite being a Labour supporter, I think I would have voted for independence because I would have thought that I would never again have a Tory Government… I think the Welsh Assembly Government should have h2er powers than they have at the moment… and similarly I am in favour of power being decentralised to the regional level. The track record in England, with the old regional assemblies wasn’t great, but the principle was a good one. Maybe this comes from the fact that I have studied a very small country, The Gambia, which has a population of around 2 million now, but when it reached independence in 1965 it was less than 300,000. So, the assumption was that it was too small to be viable, but for 30 years it was viable, and probably because of that my sympathies are towards smaller political entities, within a broader entity. So, although I said that had I been in Scotland I would have voted yes, I would have wanted Scotland to have stayed in the EU if independence was won and not outside. Perhaps now I feel Wales is not large enough… but it is certainly bigger than The Gambia, and if there were a movement for independence in Wales and it is what people wanted, I would have said ‘yes, great’!
What does Anglicanism teach about the exercise of power?
Anglicanism has a lot to teach the rest of society in terms of separation of powers. The Churches as a whole have a requirement to speak publicly on key moral and social issues, and that has often been seen as overtly political. The classic example for Anglicans is Faith and City in 1979. That report was seen as basically anti-Tory and anti-Mrs Thatcher, but I think the principle was that the Church saw a great increase in social division, and a lot of problems in the urban areas, and it spoke up. It is related to what I said earlier. I think the bishops must speak out, as an institution the Church should do that. I don’t think the Churches should say: ‘you must vote Labour’… the recent announcement of the bishops in fact didn’t say that, even if it has been interpreted that way. It is clearly not a pro-Labour letter, but I think that it is an important role for the Church to express its views about particular matters, but not in a partisan way.
Do you think that Anglicans are proportionately represented in public life?
I don’t know the numbers, but I would expect in practice that Anglicans are over-represented in the HofC, the HofL, and I am sure in public institutions generally. Because the Anglican Communion is obviously very broad and diverse, there isn’t on many issues a single Anglican voice … well, there is in the sense that Justin Welby gives a view, but within Anglicanism there are so many views… more evangelically minded, more conservative, more liberal Anglicans, that on a lot of issues there is not in practice a single uniform view… I would certainly be very surprised if Anglicans were under-represented in public bodies.
I think, generally speaking, the judiciary are independent. There are connections in the sense that a lot of judges, a lot of MPs, senior civil servants will be drawn from similar backgrounds, similar classes, possibly similar schools… and you still have that legacy in the UK. It is clearly not as it was 50 years ago, when you would expect the vast majority of that collective group to be from Oxbridge. Things have changed, but certainly you could argue that they haven’t changed enough. So, you still get a lot of overlap, but does that actually mean in practice that the judiciary is not independent? I think on the whole they are but there are clearly instances where the legal system doesn’t work as well as it should. But I certainly feel that generally the judiciary is pretty independent, despite these overlapping class and social links between different groups.
I think that there is a trend towards party dominance of MPs though the whips as opposed to the way Parliament was 300 years ago, when it was easier to be an independently minded MP, because the party structures were not as tight as it is now… I think that trend is continuing in terms of party control over MPs. You still get independently minded backbenchers. Frank Field would be a good example… but how would you actually change that in practice? I wouldn’t be in favour of an idea where MPs should just represent the voices of those who elected them and should not be able to change their position… so, having a party system is inevitable and it is on the whole a good thing. It is unfortunate that sometimes MPs feel they have to follow the leaders all the time or their careers won’t progress. However, I don’t think that independently minded backbenchers have completely disappeared… we see now lots of conservative MPs being very vocal in opposition to Europe… I’d rather not have them there… but you cannot pick and choose, I suppose!
I think in terms of Parliament, Anglican needs are met, because there are so many MPs or peers who are Anglicans, and there is an understanding of Anglicanism. The courts are an interesting example and it has worked both ways. There are some judges that in some cases concerning Christianity have made some assumptions about the core beliefs of Christians that they would certainly not make about the core beliefs of other faiths, You could argue that that is not really their role to do this. That would imply that the judges think they really understand mainstream Christian beliefs. They may or they may not… In terms of health sector, again some of our work shows that in some contexts there is a lack of understanding of people’s Christian beliefs, I would say Christian rather than Anglican, in terms of ridiculing people who pray in hospital or want to read the Bible… I think universities are also an interesting area. There is obviously not one model of universities, but there are some universities which think that religion has no place on campus and that the university should be a completely secular place. There are others which have a completely different view. In relation to local authorities, it comes back to the public sector equality duties, some of them are better than others at complying, and some don’t know what they have to do…
Is it important for you always to act within secular law?
As a Christian, I think there are times in which you may have to challenge the law, or the Government, or whatever. I have never experienced that personally. I probably never will, but an obvious example would be Christians under Nazi Germany who because of their religious beliefs stood up against the system, what was an elected Government, against a law that they thought it was wrong. I think that if you have beliefs, there may come a point when you have to say ‘I think this is morally wrong and I am not going to agree with it’. But in the workplace if you take that approach you have equally to be willing to accept the consequences. So, for example. I am in favour of marriage of same-sex couples, but if I wasn’t and if I was in a type of job like a registrar, who has to perform marriages and was morally opposed to it… if that were my view, I might say ‘I am not prepared to perform marriages of same sex couples’. However, equally I would be willing to take the consequences and maybe I would have to resign, find another job, etc. There may be times in which you will have to challenge something you object to, but you will have to accept the consequences. Perhaps a better analogy which could affect me… there are certain jobs I wouldn’t go for. For example, I wouldn’t work for a tobacco firm under any circumstances whatsoever, or a firm which was engaged in the arms trade. Sorry, it is moving slightly away from the law, but it is the same principle, I think, that there are times in which you have to say you are not prepared to do something but you will be prepared to take the consequences.
Does your faith require you to speak out for third parties, especially the vulnerable?
My faith requires for me to speak on behalf of the weak and the vulnerable, but I am not very good at doing it, but as a Christian, you should be doing that…. Injustice, debt, human rights abuse… In practise I am not very good at it, but in theory I think it is a crucial part of Christianity.
I think some minorities receive prejudicial treatment from public authorities and particularly groups like Pagans… groups that are not understood…. Gypsies and Travellers are a good example. I think there is plenty of good evidence in terms of the adverse treatment which Gypsies and Travellers have received from the courts and local authorities.
How do you feel about the extension of police powers over recent years?
The same rules which apply to private citizens should also apply to the police, and attempts by the State, for example, to increase the time that people can be detained before trial, increase sanctions, reductions of liberty are problematic. Although I think and understand the motives of the legislation, I would be opposed to essentially short time solutions that have longer term consequences for freedoms and liberties… it is much harder to build up freedoms and liberties than to reduce them.
Are there any legal rules which you find restrictive?
I cannot think of any piece of legislation which restricts the practice of my faith.
Generally speaking, I am happy with the legal framework. There are obviously laws with regard to equality issues, which I would like strengthened, but I think that’s probably more in terms of the way the law is interpreted or implemented… rather than the legislation itself. There are indeed aspects of the Equality Act which have not been implemented, but they are there, in the Equality Act and I would like the Government to implement it, but it is not that the legislation is not there. It is simply that there is no will to do it which is of course slightly different.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I think there are difficult issues in terms, as we have discussed, of one person’s freedom of expression and another person’s proselytization or reducing freedom of expression and I would like within society a better quality of debate about issues of religion. This is related to the lack of religious literacy generally, but I think if you have a better quality debate, there will be in time a better understanding of the positive ways that religion or belief can play within society or in the workplace, or within the delivery of services. But you need that better quality of debate and a better understanding… I don’t mean a detailed knowledge of all religions and beliefs, because nobody can have that, but a better understanding of religions and beliefs across the board.
I think the position of Religious Education is critical. It plays a very important role and I would like to see it being part of the National Curriculum. I also think RE should give children a broad understanding of different religions and beliefs, including secular and humanist beliefs. What I don’t agree with is 1950s-type religious instruction. I think it is important that children become knowledgeable about a certain range of views and then they make their own choices, but unless they have a certain knowledge and understanding, it’s difficult for them to do this. So there should be a broad RE, covering a wide range of religions and beliefs.
I do not have a problem in principle with schools of a religious character… I prefer that term to faith schools… provided that the teaching that they provide is, again, wide-ranging and diverse. If you have a CofE school, it must teach other beliefs, including secularism and humanism, it must be non-judgmental, not trying to impose its beliefs but informing children about different beliefs… You should never ridicule other’s beliefs, whatever they might be, and you should respect others’ views, whatever they are… and I think that happens in many schools with religious character. In other schools this is not done, and the approach is narrowly denominational and I don’t agree with that approach. But I don’t have a problem with the principle of having schools of a religious character. Many of the people I speak to have a problem with them, but I don’t!
Dr David Perfect is a Research Manager at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). He leads the EHRC’s research work on religion or belief issues and contributes to policy work in this area; he also runs the EHRC’s Religion or Belief Network which has more than 850 members. The author of several journal articles and book chapters on religion or belief topics, he is also a Visiting Research Associate at the University of Chester and the author of three books on the history and politics of The Gambia.